By Jack Petrash
“At the center of your being, you have the answer.” Lao Tzu
The day after the presidential election, a group of preschool children were lining up for recess. One of the older boys was making plans for what they would do outside. However, in doing so he was excluding some of the children. The teacher, overhearing this conversation, reminded the boy that everyone could play. The child replied, “What about Donald Trump? He doesn’t let everyone play.”
We have to ask ourselves how aware our children are of our current political situation and how do they make sense of it. I know what it is like for me, and how difficult it has been to know how to respond. The election of Donald Trump has affected us all differently. For 45% of the country his election was a joyous surprise. But in Washington D.C., where I live, more than 90% of the votes were cast for Hillary Clinton. The people in my community have expressed dismay, disbelief, bewilderment, and often anger. This leaves me wondering how to go forward in a positive manner.
Perhaps the best advice that I have received was from a good friend who said that when the world’s events astonish you, pay attention. So I have read more of the Washington Post and listened to more NPR reports in recent weeks. But most of all, I have worked hard to find my center, that quiet place of discernment. When I am centered, I don’t say much, and if I do, I ask questions—open and honest questions. I come away with the understanding that our political situation is complex, that things are rarely black and white, and that there is invariably more to learn.
But the bigger question is: What would I say if I still had children at home and I needed to speak with them about Donald Trump’s election and this new direction in our country? How would I mediate the tension between seeing that my children are both protected and informed? I would want my response to be developmentally appropriate and that, of course, would depend on their age.
I have always put my faith in Waldorf education’s understanding of child development and have agreed with the idea that for the preschool child, the world should be good. Young children have such trust in the goodness of the world that they imitate the actions they see. That is why, when I hear about a Waldorf preschool student who says to his teacher that he wants to punch Donald Trump, I am concerned. Does that impulse come from an adult conversation that this child has overheard, or is it an imitated response to a radio report heard in carpool on the way to school? We should protect our young children from experiences such as these.
However, I don’t believe in protecting children from everything. I have friends who were part of the Women’s March on Washington and brought their very young children, clothed in knitted pink hats, on their shoulders and in their arms. These children seemed fine, especially since they couldn’t read the creative, but provocative, signs that were carried. Perhaps it was the positive mood of the march, or the fact that millions were marching all over the world, but attending a peaceful demonstration doesn’t seem inappropriate to me. I was actually reminded of the words of Abraham Heschel, the religious writer, who said that when he marched in Selma, Alabama he felt like his legs were praying.
At the other end of the developmental spectrum is the adolescent, for whom it is a markedly different situation. For the high school and late middle school student, the world should be true. You can see that, at this age, young people want to cut to the quick and have conversations about the political situation. These conversations should be thoughtful, informed, and considered. Adolescents have much to say and their insights are often surprising, but getting them to speak at the dinner table or in class is not always easy, and getting them to disagree respectfully can be harder still.
Back in 1999 during the Clinton impeachment hearings, I was teaching American history to a group of eighth graders. Trying to navigate our discussions on the Constitution and the impeachment process without running aground with comments about Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress was a challenge, especially for the fourteen-year-old boys in my class. I worked diligently to get my students to make their “behind the hand” comments public. And then I worked harder still to get them to elaborate more fully about what they thought and felt. I have always believed in respecting the thoughts of adolescents and leaving them free to think for themselves. When we offer an honest question, such as: “What do you think about this?” spoken with genuine interest and no preconceived notion of what we believe they should answer, young people share their opinions. Teenagers need to talk. Finding out when they are most likely to talk is part of our job. Sometimes it happens late at night when they come home at the end of an evening. It can also happen over food—milk and fresh-baked cookies can be a wonderful catalyst for meaningful conversation. Sometimes it can happen when you are stuck in traffic or during walks in nature, which can be especially helpful when we are in need of peace of mind.
My real worry is for the children in the middle of this developmental journey, the elementary school students, because for them, the world should be beautiful. That is why there is so much art in our Waldorf school hallways and classrooms; why there are all of the beautiful blackboard drawings, the paintings, the plants, and crystals. For example, what do we say in response to Donald Trump’s really ugly comments about women? I believe that in these instances it is important to adhere to the Obamas’ guideline: “When they go low, we go high.” Rather than respond in a way that impugns the president’s character, I believe we should speak in broader terms about the real issue of respect and equal rights for women and how this matter has been coming to the fore for over a hundred years. Our children can be reminded about how important it is that women be respected in in the workplace, on campuses, and in society.
In addition, there is also the matter of how our children view humanity as a whole today. Are human beings noble, and are their actions beautiful? Where is the beauty when a truck runs into marketers at a Christmas fair in Germany or when an ISIS video airs depicting an execution. Our children, exposed as they are to too much information, are at risk of becoming decidedly cynical about humanity, left with little or no faith in the goodness of people.
The first core principle in the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education is that we ascribe to an image of the human being as a unique and dignified individual. I believe that as parents and teachers we should be compiling a reservoir of stories that illustrate the remarkably good qualities that reside in human beings so we can share them with our children. These stories are in our newspapers and online; they just don’t grab the headlines.
Here is a story that I have been thinking about recently. It involves a young basketball player named George Raveling. He was a member of the Villanova basketball team in 1963. That August he decided to travel from the Philadelphia area to Washington D.C. to hear Martin Luther King speak. Early on that August morning, Raveling was standing by the Reflecting Pool on the Mall when two men came up to him and asked this young, strong looking African American man if he would be a body guard for Dr. King. George Raveling said, “Yes.”
When Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech, George Raveling stood by his side on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At the end of this speech, Dr. King began to walk away. George Raveling spoke up, “Dr. King, you forgot your papers.” Martin Luther King turned and replied in a joking manner, “Oh, you keep them son. Who knows they may be worth something some day.”
George Raveling kept those three pages, a record of this most famous speech. Even when he was offered a million dollars, he wouldn’t sell them. But what was so surprising was that when Raveling looked at those papers, the words, “I have a dream” were not written anywhere. That famous phrase was not part of the original speech. Those words came to Martin Luther King as he spoke. (John Feinstein, Last Dance)
When we speak with our children about difficult topics—and there will be many in the coming years—we should speak out of a place that is hopeful, not frustrated and angry. And we must hope that the spirit will move us as it moved Dr. King, and that from time to time our speech may be inspired too.
But until that inspiration arrives, we can use Waldorf educations’ understanding of child development as our guide. Protect the young children from adult conversations and concerns. Engage adolescents thoughtfully and listen with interest and without judgment when they share their opinions. However, it is the grade school children who will present the greatest challenge. Their stage of development is called “the heart of childhood,” and matters of the heart are delicate. These children need a hopeful picture of this beautiful world to take with them into the challenging years of adolescence.
Jack Petrash is the founder and director of the Nova Institute. He is an educator with over thirty years of Waldorf classroom experience and a teacher of teachers. He has written extensively on issues pertaining to innovative classroom instruction, has served on the editorial board of the journal Encounter, and is the author of Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out and other books.